Yemen’s Return from the Brink

Global Centre Stage

The appointment of the new UN Special Envoy to Yemen provides the opportunity to re-start a meaningful dialogue for the country to return from the brink. Not only must a political compromise be achieved, it must also equally be achieved within and across the international actors currently engaged in the crisis. Only if Iran, the Gulf States, Russia, China and the US can return to a situation of relative normalcy, will a domestic negotiated arrangement stand a reasonable chance of success, insists Robert Sharp, who, based on a strategic analysis of ends, ways and means for Yemen, suggests a campaign approach for recovery along whole-of-government lines of development.

Over the three weeks and six days from March 25 to April 21, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of nine Arab states1 under Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen at the request of President Hadi.2 The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported about 1,000 dead and 4,000 injured; the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Yemen reported that 60 percent of Yemeni are in need of humanitarian assistance (of which 7.9 million are children).3

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) describes Yemen as a “catastrophe” and notes that “nowhere is safe in Yemen.”4 Civilians from a range of countries have been evacuated; the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNHCA) estimates that over 121,000 people have been displaced.5 It is likely that the actual figures for the dead, injured and displaced are higher.

Impact of UN Resolution and Potential for “Boots on the Ground”

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 22166 of April 14 was welcomed within the GCC,7as it provides legitimacy to the Saudi-led coalition. Gaining agreement to the Resolution was an object lesson in diplomacy and included virtuoso performances from the Saudi Ambassador to the UN, other GCC Ambassadors and the Jordanian president of the body. Russia abstained8 and China “voted for [the resolution], but stated that there was no military solution.”9The resolution allows for additional measures by the Security Council, as necessary.

Not surprisingly, it was rejected (“opposed by all means”) by the Houthis10 because it embargoed arms sales and applied a travel ban on former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his son. Both men are now sanctioned for posing a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.11Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi received the same travel ban. The Resolution requires the Houthis to“withdraw their forces from the areas they seized, including the capital Sana’a, and hand over all weapons they took from security and military institutions, including missile systems.”

Leading up to the Resolution, “boots on the ground” seemed possible because in earlier correspondence both Egypt12 and the UAE had indicated they were prepared to send troops or at least were not ruling it out.13 But after a month of air strikes, on April 21, a new, maybe more limited Saudi-led coalition campaign called Operation Restoring Hope began. It intends to prevent the Houthis from “targeting civilians or changing realities on the ground”14 and to continue to remove the threat posed by pro-Saleh remnants and members of Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The former has called for a “return to dialogue”15, while the latter continue to mount attacks; most recently, they took control of Mukalla airport in the largest Yemeni province of Hadramout.16Adding further fuel to the fire, most recently, Da’esh has claimed responsibility for bombings under its new “Green Brigade”. They attacked a vehicle of Houthi rebels in Yarim, Ibb Province on April 22, killing five; they had already claimed the March 20 mosque attacks in Sana’a.17Operation Restoring Hope will continue to support Yemeni military forces loyal to Hadi and resistance elements in Aden, Mareb, Taiz, Albaidha and Shabwah.

Perhaps reminiscent of a “whack-a-mole” approach, this next stage appears to be a toned-down yet prolonged air campaign, with strikes only necessary if targets manifest themselves, because the Saudis – who are apparently rewarding their pilots with Bentley cars18 - state that sufficient damage has been done to the Houthis. Operation Restoring Hope makes “boots on the ground” now very unlikely and even suggests the Saudis have had enough, do not want to be embroiled in a longer-term campaign, or that they have responded to negative pressures from other actors. Iran’s naval destroyer to Yemen, now apparently returning,was countered by the US deployment of vessels.19 The Iranians have pressed their concerns frequently about Saudi actions. Specifically, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei condemned the air campaign, saying that “this is a crime, genocide and legally pursuable ... the Saudis will lose ... Yemenis will resist and will win.”20 Pakistan, out of favour with the GCC for not supporting the initial strikes because they feared losing friends with China,21 has also welcomed the end of hostilities.22 The US response was to suggest the “job is not yet done,”23 and within a day of the change of phase being announced, Saudi-led air strikes continued to engage targets in Yemen.24

Securing a Peace Deal – A Multi-Pronged Approach

The Saudi re-launch of air strikes may be a way to force the Houthis and all parties to the negotiating table. Resolution 2216 urged parties to reject violence and resolve their differences through dialogue. It requested those involved attend a GCC conference in Riyadh brokered by the UN. Achieving a political compromise is complex and progress will only be made by finding a unifying narrative that all parties can agree to – some shared interest. The UN has appointed a new Special Envoy to Yemen which provides opportunity.25Re-starting a meaningful dialogue is best achieved if vested in the current humanitarian crisis and focused on youth (115 dead and 172 maimed, so far).26Once domestic violence ends,regardless of whether attacks by the Saudi-led coalition stop, parties seeking power within a future Yemen will lack credibility at the ballot box if they are perceived as non-supportive of preventing suffering among the people. Not only must a political compromise be achieved in Yemen, it must also equally be achieved within and across international actors currently engaged in the crisis. Only if Iran, the Gulf States, Russia, China and the US also return to a situation of relative normalcy,can a domestic negotiated arrangement stand a reasonable chance of success.

Domestically, a call for talks27 to rebuild social well-being and focused on sufferingyouth, stands the best chance of success. Talks should focus on near, mid- and long-term humanitarian requirements and, where possible, should utilise the remaining loyal elements of Yemen’s army in the emergency provision of water, food and to facilitate power as a way to reconnect the military to the people. Yemen will need a strong civil-military relationship as it rebuilds. It will also need a new Army. A regional or international peace support force in place might help sustain the process, but could potentially be vulnerable if the situation deteriorates and parties violate the ceasefire, returning to their old ways.

Yemen must be put back on track by the GCC endorsed Initiative and Implementation Mechanism.28 The lessons learned from the National Dialogue Conference29 remain valid and most parties agreed to the outcomes. The point of contention seemed to be the Houthi and southern secessionist view of the draft Constitution30, which will need to be thoroughly re-visited, reviewed and then taken to a national referendum, as the GCC had suggested. The issue of reorganisation of Yemen into sub-regions or state-lettes was also an area of contention.31

International donors will need to be identified to add weight to the attractiveness of securing a domestic deal as a parallel and economic incentive approach. The GCC-US talks planned for May 13 and 14 in the US32 provide an opportunity to draw up a credible, resourced and achievable approach internationally. Hopefully, GCC countries, who recently indicated their willingness to provide aid to Yemen as a GCC group33, will discuss this at their meeting prior to meeting President Obama.

Long-Term Vision

Other international actors may be able to help, but the short-term humanitarian need - while it must be fixed - is only worth anything if built upon by a sustained longer-term stabilisation, reconstruction and development strategy. Yemen will near the brink again and even risk falling off it unless, this time, a longer-term view is taken. Maybe it is time for the GCC to seriously consider granting Yemen associate membership.34 Yemen will surely collapse again unless such innovative action is taken. If not, the GCC may be back in only a few years to stabilise the country yet again. It makes sense to have a serious think about the longer-term vision for Yemen. The GCC states cannot choose their neighbours, but they can take measures to minimise problem overspill.

A missing strategic analysis of ends, ways and means for Yemen would suggest that a campaign approach is needed for its recovery along whole-of-government lines of development. For the lines of development listed, the first word is the activity required and the latter the outcome sought. These are: humanitarian assistance and social well-being, governance and participation, economic stabilisation and infrastructure, security and safety, and justice and reconciliation.35 In short, a political compromise can be achieved if presented as worth the effort and with the full engagement of influencing regional and international actors.

Analysing Yemen’s Political and Social Survival Skills

A recent email conversation with a Professor from Sana’a University, in Yemen’s capital, helps place Yemen’s current crisis in context:

“But I do not know if you were aware that we were living a very bad humanitarian situation in the past week. There was no electricity. We were living in constant darkness. There was and still is no fuel to use house generators. There is no water in pipes and we were forced to buy water from trucks bringing it from wells around Sana’a. We are totally disconnected from the world. Electricity came on just a few hours ago.”36

If brinksmanship is “the practice of causing or allowing a situation to become extremely dangerous in order to get desired results,”37 then Yemen’s people are the quintessential case study and the ultimate casualties. Let the record show that Yemen has been in a constant state of suffering since at least 2011, when the so-called Arab Spring uprisings swept the region. Some suggest that that period extends back a further 33 years to the date Saleh took office and even further back,according to some Yemeni historians. As national, regional and international actors wrestle their interests, as they have done, the people of Yemen suffer further decline. If the Saudi-led intervention is to be reviewed within the context of history, then, like many others have failed in the past, they should try to fix Yemen, once and for all. If not, then the people of Yemen are merely a tool of brinkmanship within a wider yet currently undefined agenda.

The Resolution calls for the UN Secretary General to facilitate aid, the evacuation of civilians, and to establish humanitarian truces. The Yemeni have an almost alarming tolerance for suffering.38 The people will recover from the Saudi-led strikes because throughout history they have displayed their stoicism. Yemeni will have to“pick yourselfup, brush yourself off and start all over again.”39 They will recover from the suffering –better and quicker – iftruly supported,but they will also remember why it occurred. Reconciliation, domestic and also international, is therefore key to any future being considered by strategic leaders. Similarly, the parties will join in negotiation if the narrative proposed earlier of youth humanitarian relief is resourced for success by the international community. Parties may like one another less now than before, but if there is power to be shared under the narrative of saving the youth, they will turn the other cheek and come to talk. When Ali Abdullah Saleh described leading Yemen as “Dancing on the Heads of Snakes”, he had good reason to; Yemen’s politics are complex, linked to tribal and ethnic loyalties, and very adaptive.

Yemen sits strategically at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula astride the Bab al Mandab, at a key choke point for resource flow. Yemen is the hinge from east to west, an Arab state and their ancestral home. Its history is rich and its people endearing. There is still now the opportunity for Yemen to return from the brink, but it requires a new approach and new thinking. If not, and if regional and international actors do not step up, and domestic actors do not seethe dangers of their actions, Yemen will just be another Syria, Iraq or Somalia. And that would be an insupportable tragedy.

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Robert (Bob) Sharp

Robert (Bob) Sharp is an associate professor, the UAE National Defense College Associate Dean for Academic Programs and College Quality Assurance Advisor. The views expressed in the article are the author’s alone and not the view, policy or opinion of the UAE or US governments.This article is an update to Yemen: On the Brink, featured in the March 2015 edition of Diplomatist

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    39 King Cole, Nat – Song Lyrics – Pick yourself up – accessed at on April 25, 2015.

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